The Disturbing Unsolved Mystery of the Max Headroom TV Hack

By Shannon Quinn

November 22, 1987, thousands of people living in Illinois turned on the evening news on WGN Chicago. It was 9:14 PM. Dinner was done, kids were asleep, and the reporters read out the news over the broadcast. The screen became fuzzy, and a man wearing a plastic mask of a well-known character named Max Headroom appeared, standing in front of corrugated metal. The employees of the news station panic, and quickly intercept the pirated signal before the person behind the mask could speak.

The news resumed, and any viewers who witnessed that moment must have blinked, rubbed their eyes, and probably checked the locks on their doors. Many people lost sleep, wondering, what was that? Meanwhile, the person who would later become known as the Max Headroom Hacker must have been cursing up a storm, angry that Chicago never got to hear the message they had intended to tell the world…Until the tried again.

The Origin of Max Headroom

In the 1980’s, a character named Max Headroom was making audiences laugh, while simultaneously wondering if they truly were living in the future. The claim was that Max was artificial intelligence software was created to simulate human conversation. Behind him, lines of color moved around, creating almost a hypnotic and “trippy” experience for anyone watching. They called him the “World’s first computer-generated TV host”. He responded to questions, and even made jokes. The only problem was the fact that he glitched and sputtered every few seconds.

This was never meant to take the jobs of human TV hosts. In fact, the real identity of Max Headroom was a real-live human actor named Matt Frewer. The character, Max Headroom, was the creation of a group of artists running a small-time music video show in England. One of them was a director named Rocky Morton. He was best remembered for directing the dark and gritty live action Super Mario Brothers movie. He co-directed with his partner Annabel Jankel, who directed music videos and an Emmy-award winning series called Friday Night Videos, which was similar to the format used on MTV. Together with a group of writers from Great Britain’s Channel 4, they created the idea of Max Headroom to be their talking head to go in-between each music video they aired on TV.

The team knew that they wanted the character of Max Headroom to be a parody of American TV show hosts and news anchors. They were always speaking loudly, and they were overly confident and self-assured. The group was developing the idea of Max Headroom for a very long time, while pitching networks for funding to make a movie that would lead into a talk show. One of the few American actors living in London at the time, Matt Frewer, auditioned for the role of Max. Physically, he was perfect for the part, and he completely understood what they were going for. They pitched the idea to HBO, who agreed to fund a made-for-tv-movie.

Actor Matt Frewer had to wear a plastic suit top and go through several hours of makeup to achieve the look of Max Headroom. Credit: The Verge

In 1985, the hour-long film Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into The Future premiered on HBO. In the movie, an evil corporation in a Blade Runner-esque future called “Network 23” was planning to brainwash viewers to increase their ratings and make more money from advertisers. The only problem is that the program also has the potential to make sedentary people literally explode. That’s a risk the network is willing to take.

Edison Carter is a journalist who works at Network 23, and he is committed to finding the truth. He is willing to do anything to get his story, even if it means risking his life. He is on the edge of uncovering the truth about his employers. Network 23 doesn’t want him to know anything about their secret project, because he would tell the world how evil they are. So they attempt to murder him.

A boy genius computer programmer working for Network 23 took Edison Carter’s memories to create an artificial intelligence program. He also create an animated character based on facial recognition software to report the news. Since the last thing Carter read before he was knocked unconscious were the words “Max Headroom”, the AI introduced himself as such, sputtering and glitching every few words.  He looks and sounds like Edison Carter, except that he now has a smooth, plastic Ken Doll appearance. An executive from Network 23 claimed that it was far too glitchy, and it would never work on their station. They discarded the program, but it was found by a man named Blank Reg, who ran a Pirate TV station airing music videos.

The movie was basically a way for audiences to understand the backstory of “the world’s first computer-generated TV show host” that would later get its own talk show called The Max Talking Headroom Show, which aired on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom. Of course, a lot of people never saw the movie beforehand, and some were convinced that technology truly was so advanced, the AI was actually real. The concept was so popular, it doubled the ratings for the station.

The rights to air Max Headroom was purchased by ABC in the United States, and an Americanized version of his talk show began airing overseas. Coca Cola spotted the character, and they wanted to use it for their New Coke. Sales had been down, and they needed a unique angle to help get people to want to try it. Ironically, this completely went against everything the original creators had intended for Max Headroom. The whole point was to call out the evils of corporate greed, and yet it was sold out to one of the biggest corporations on the planet. This made the original creators very upset, and it would not be surprising that some die-hard fans picked up on the disappointment, as well.

The Second Hack

The same night of the first hack, the 90-second pirate transmission interrupted an episode of Dr. Who on WTTW TV. The hacker began to burble out incoherent nonsense, and people have tried to translate the message as best as they could. The voice of the man behind the mask is altered to be high-pitched and robotic. There are several different interpretations of the message, but it is believed that the transmission was as follows:

“That does it…He’s a frickin nerd. (giggling). Yeah, I think I’m better than Chuck Swirsky. Frickin’ Liberal. Oh, Jesus! (laughing, or moaning). Oh Yeah. Ha ha,” He says, holding up a dildo. “Catch the wave?” The man says, referencing the Max Headroom commercial and holding up a can of coca cola before tossing it across the room, laughing and screaming as he gets closer to the camera. In half sings, half screams, “Your love is fading!”, followed by the theme song to a cartoon called Clutch Cargo. “I stole CBS”, he mentions quickly. Suddenly, he stops the happy songs, and fake sobs, “Oh, my files…”  The fake moaning stops, and he is suddenly chipper again. “Oh, I just made my greatest masterpiece for the greatest newspaper nerds.” He picks up what appears to be an old-fashioned baseball glove from the 1950’s, saying, “My brother is wearing the other one. It’s dirty.”

The camera cuts, and we see the angle has moved. We see the man who was wearing the mask is now bent over with his pants down, and he reaches his band to hold the mask in front of the camera, as if to illustrate that it’s really him. He moans, “Ohhhh, they’re coming to get me.”. A woman off-screen dressed like Annie Oakley says, “Bend over, bitch!” as she slaps him with a fly swatter.  “Don’t do it! Noooo!” Max Headroom cries, and the video fizzes back to the original broadcast of Dr. Who.

While it all sounds like incoherent babble coming from an insane person, people have been searching for clues within the broadcast to find a deeper meaning. After all, why would someone with access to such high-tech equipment capable of interfering with a TV station do all of this just for a joke? If they had been caught, they could have gotten arrested or lost their jobs. What were they trying to accomplish? And, of course, there was at least one other person involved- the faceless woman, who agreed to go along with it. There may have been more, because someone needed to stand behind the sheet of corrugated metal, while another person may have been needed to stand behind the camera.

Immediately following the hack, FBI agents were tasked to find out the identities of the people who were responsible. However, they needed cooperation from the FCC to look further into the incident, and they were very reluctant to allow the FBI in to sensitive information.

We know that it was not a live broadcast, because the video cuts to the flyswatter scene very quickly. So whoever did this had enough time and planning to film and edit the video before getting it on air. If a group of people did this to send a message, they hid it somewhere in that tape. The real question is- what in the world were they trying to say?

Internet sleuths have been trying to figure out the identity of the Max Headroom hacker for decades. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Theories

Without any proof of the identity of the hackers or even a potential motivation, the mystery of the Max Headroom Incident has remained unsolved for decades. The video eventually made its way online, and people far outside of the Chicago area became intrigued by the strange hack. People began to share their own personal theories and potential leads.

In 2011, one Reddit user by the name of “bpoag” shared an experience they had when they were just 13 years old. He was friends with dial-up hackers who were much older than he was, with most of them in high school, college, and beyond. They met through the primitive chatrooms, sharing their love of computers. Most of them were also apart of their high school and college Audio Visual clubs. They called themselves “phreakers”, and they had fun doing hacks that we would now consider to be primitive, like tricking a payphone into believing you have dropped several quarters into it. Free phone calls for life. Great for kids back in the 80’s, but not exactly on-level with a TV interference hack.

Two of the friends in the group were brothers. One of them, “J” was the eldest, in his late 20’s to early 30’s. He had autism, and he lived at home with their parents. The second brother, “K”, was younger, and shared an apartment with a roommate and his girlfriend. The apartment was filled floor to ceiling with computers, phones, and audio-visual equipment. According to Bpoag, they all went to dinner at Pizza Hut one night, and the older kids hinted that he should watch Channel 11 that night, because J was going to do “something big”. The brothers were immature in a lot of ways, making sexually inappropriate jokes, and playing pranks on the staff at Pizza Hut. That night, the hack went on air.

So, what’s the motive? Bpoag says that it was just a bunch of kids trying to prove that they were smart enough to do it. However, there are several holes in the story. It has since been debunked. Apparently, there was no way that an amateur phreaker like “J” could have pulled off the hack. The only way for a pirate TV signal to overtake a real news station would be if their signal was stronger than the one on TV. Amateur video nerds, especially teenage kids, would never own the expensive and powerful equipment necessary to break through the airwaves. This means that someone at the TV station must have been involved, or the hacker broke in to the station and took over the machinery.

Shaye Saint John is a character created by one of the internet’s first outsider artists, Eric Fournier. Credit: Vice

Another theory is that it may have been an actor named Eric Fournier, who became one of the first people to post their avant-garde performances on YouTube. He created a female character named “Shaye Saint John”. He wears a creepy rubber mask of a woman wearing lipstick. The joke, of course, was that this terrifying “woman” was claiming to be a supermodel. Fournier even created a website for Shay Saint John, complete with early 2000’s graphics of sparkling wallpapers and custom cursers. She lives in Los Angeles, and is completely obsessed with beauty, miracle cures, and quick fixes. She shares every aspect of her life online, and it extremely vain, only caring about fashion and money. Obviously, Fournier was mocking the emergence of female bloggers that were popping up online, hoping to become internet famous.

People say that his personality and sense of humor matches the Max Headroom hacker perfectly, and that they were essentially trying to spread the same message about society. For someone who took the time to perform, film, and hack their message to the world, signing up for a YouTube account would have been a natural transition. Aside from those similarities, though, there is very little reason to believe that Eric Fournier was the hacker. He was struggling with alcoholism, trying to stand out as an artist in Los Angeles. He died of alcohol-related health complications at 42 years old in 2010. This would have made him just 19 years old at that time the interference occurred. It would also be very random that he would be in Chicago. For all the same reasons “J” and K” were written off as potential suspects.

While many people have attempted to investigate or film documentaries on the subject, no one has broken through with enough information to get a lead on the hacker that isn’t simply circumstantial evidence.

Max Headroom appears in the 2015 movie Pixels. Credit: YouTube

Legacy, and References in Pop Culture

Max Headroom became a cultural icon of the 1980’s, and it changed the way a lot of people think about traditional media. There are some very lighthearted references in modern-day movies, like the digital cameo appearance in the 2015 movie Pixels. However, the hack possibly inspired even more than the original character.

A television hack incident appears in the series Mr. Robot. It appears to be inspired by the Max Headroom incident, and the backstory of the TV show may have some insight into more of the theories that people have had over the years. In Mr. Robot, the hacker group called “F- Society” created a very similar video to the Max Headroom incident on a VHS tape, so that there would be no digital signature to track them down. The mask in the show resembles the Monopoly Man. It is based on a fictional character from a horror movie called The Careful Massacre of the Bourgeoisie, within the Mr. Robot universe. Instead of crazy babble, their message is very clear. They are trying to bring down a corrupt corporation called E-Corp, and they want to erase the national debt by hacking into bank computers.

In Mr. Robot, the F-Society hacks into TV airwaves to get their messages to the world. Credit: YouTube

It is likely that the Max Headroom Hacker was also very unhappy with corporations, but they didn’t have any clear message about what he wanted people to do. Were the hackers trying to take over the airwaves of television in Chicago? Were they trying to destroy the public’s trust in the media? Unless the hackers come forward someday with more information, we may never know the whole story.

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

The Mystery of the Creepiest Television Hack. Chris Knittel. Motherboard. 2013.

The Story of Max Headroom. YouTube.

Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into The Future. YouTube.

The Definitive Oral History of the 1980s Digital Icon Max Headroom. Bryan Bishop. The Verge.

The Origin of The Mr. Robot Mask is Cheesy Horror Goodness. Samantha Sofka. Nerdist. 2016.

The Bpoag Testimony. Reddit.com

New Developments in the Max Headroom Incident Mystery. Unsolved Mysteries Reddit.

Shaye Saint John Is Forever.